Thursday, April 30, 2015

Dancing with the New Testament

As part of last week's Study Leave I took up Stephen Neill and Tom Wright's The Interpretation of the New Testament: 1861-1986 (Oxford UP: 1988). This thorough review of scholarly work surveys the big names of New Testament criticism, exegesis, and theology from a century which still undergirds so much current thinking. I read with joy and wonder the ability of Neill and Wright to summarize, honor, and criticize--the latter always with the humble reserve of OxBridge scholarly culture--such a vast landscape of literature. I appreciate their honest recognition that the work of New Testament studies brings the persistently human in contact with the persistently divine, so that in spite of the excellent quality of the labors of the Ivory Tower a certain incompleteness always remains. But I am enriched from having received Neill and Wright's engagement, often very personal, with these labors.

At the end of the book--which, we must remember, is a survey rather than a thesis in itself--Wright draws our attention back to the very source of Enlightenment criticism, from which all the scholarship surveyed here grew. The insistence of the Protestant Reformation on the "literal sense of scripture" gave birth to all the critical tools of evaluating the text we have in the Bible. The use of these tools leads us, however, to a realization the Wright describes and which resonates with my own experience: "we find that this literal sense points us beyond itself" (p445).

Throughout the book, Neill and Wright drop hints that historical criticism, form criticism, redaction criticism, and the rest of the members of the critical family have not (at least as of 1986) gotten to the matter of Jesus' resurrection, the Easter moment. Questions of "the historical Jesus," raised by all Three Quests (maybe there's a Fourth Quest by now), have only skirted this primary historical criterion of faith. Even the review of E.P. Sanders' novel idea that Paul had a "participationist eschatology" (p427) does not bring up the strange event of Paul's conversion, which hinges on a Resurrected Jesus encountering Paul personally.

I find the academic work described so masterfully in this book profound and greatly helpful in my own vision of what it means to be an interpreter of the New Testament for today. But it seems that this work keeps its distance from the experience to which the New Testament itself testifies: a Resurrected One who speaks with the voice of God to persons in every generation. Perhaps this is a necessary limit of the scholarly task. Perhaps Wright humbly recognizes the proper bounds of this task, when at the very conclusion he seeks to describe New Testament interpretation in the metaphor of music with its melodies and harmonies. Criticism bounded, as it must be by reason, may not be able to grasp the essence of the New Testament, any more than one can grasp why a shift from a major to a minor chord changes the mood of a melody. One may simply require experience and participation to understand. (This is not to cast doubt on whether Neill and Wright have such an experience, but only to recognize that experience may not be welcome in the scholars' colloquy.)

One thing remains, on which this book and I agree: We must continue to grapple with the New Testament, to wrestle with it, to dance with it, to sing its melodies and improvise its harmonies. After all, it is the story of Jesus Christ, and by faith in him it is also our story. I thank God for such a chorus of thinkers who continue to offer us their meditations, that we may be built up and equipped for our good works.

~ emrys

Monday, April 27, 2015

Living Color

Yesterday, April 26th, more than 5,000 people gathered at our local community college-cum-SUNY satellite campus for a fun run called "Color Run." The 5K "race" includes getting sprayed down at half-mile intervals with brightly colored corn starch. By the end of the 3.1 miles, participants have been doused in orange, pink, yellow, green, and blue dye. (The dye works its way out of skin in about a week, and out of blonde hair in a month or so--I'm told.) I call it a "race" because the throngs are so thick that runners can't manage more than a jog, and walkers are really just sauntering. A better way to describe it is a fast parade of people who have finally found an excuse to wear their loudest, most brightly colored ensembles and get messy. Here's a shot back at the first mile:
Sara, Gwendolyn, and Kerri did the Color Run together. Gwendolyn had trained for this over the last few weeks; finishing a three-mile walk on her own feet was an accomplishment. Here is the triumphant trio coming out of the last splash of color (but before the penultimate glitter station):
~ emrys

Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Right Questions

I have for some time struggled with the contours of what we Christians call the "inspiration" of the bible--"inspiration" being a term pulled from 2 Timothy 3:16. Though I have been unable for a long time to put words to my quandary, I generally sensed a disconnect between the plain text of the bible and descriptions of the bible, common in the circles I run in, which use words like "inerrant" and "infallible" to describe our sacred texts.

I have found in the writing of James Barr (Holy Scripture: Canon, Authority, Criticism, Westminster Press, 1983), work which formulates with precision the questions I have done only roughly myself. And, of course, being a Regius Professor at Oxford, Barr has gone much further. In this book he describes in clear and readable detail some of the necessary boundaries and possible horizons of our understanding of scripture.

The book presents a series of lectures, which makes the content at once more accessible and, I think, less deep than I ultimately wish to go. One of the regrettable features of the book is, in spite of its title, that it spends a good deal of time on criticism, a good deal more on canon (especially in critiquing the school of "canonical criticism"), and not nearly enough time on authority. Though I appreciate the precise attention to the landscape of canon and criticism, my present goal is to find a proper understanding of authority.

The authority of the bible is of singular importance to Christians, of course. But as soon as we declare that it has some authority over our lives, questions abound. Particularly poignant to me is how the New Testament, so interested in relating an experience and stunningly uninterested in establishing a new written law, can be seen as an authority for the Church. How can one affirm the authority of a text without somehow diminishing or setting aside the authority of the One to whom it points?

A good beginning. On to the next read.

~ emrys

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Church Rules

Two Sundays ago, the following exchange happened, on paper, in the church pew during worship. The players: Kerri is a beloved friend of the family, college student, and wise mentor to my precocious 6-year-old daughter.

It's amazing what can be said in the silence of pen and paper.

"Dear G: Today is Sunday, April 12th, 2015, and your bony bottom is squishing me. However, even though your dress is itchy beyond belief I still love you very much. Love, Kerri"

"Dear G: I love you. Sit on your own buns. Remember church rules. Love, Mom."

I love the women in my life.

~ emrys